Patchy delivery of functions undermines functional redundancy in a high diversity system

Robert P. Streit, Graeme S. Cumming, David R. Bellwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Globally, many ecosystems are being challenged and transformed by anthropogenic climate change. Future ecosystem configurations will be heavily influenced by the critical ecological functions that affect resilience. Robust measures of these functions will thus be essential for understanding and responding to ecological change. Coral reefs are experiencing unprecedented ecological change due to global mass coral bleaching. After bleaching events and other disturbances, herbivorous fishes provide functions that are critical for reef resilience by controlling harmful proliferation of algae. Identifying functional diversity amongst herbivorous fishes has been a mainstay of reef fish research, but it has remained unclear how, and to what extent, functional diversity translates to functional impacts on reefs. Rather than assessing the functional potential of the herbivorous fish community, we explicitly considered the delivery of herbivory to the reef by quantifying, in unprecedented detail, the spatial extent and overlap of feeding areas across different functional groups. Core feeding areas were highly concentrated and consistently covered just 14% of available reef space. Overlap across functional groups was limited, showing high spatial complementarity as functional groups tended to feed next to one another. Thus, the delivery of critical ecosystem processes was patchy, effectively reducing functional redundancy, even in the presence of a diverse fish assemblage. Our findings caution against assumptions of spatial homogeneity in the delivery of critical ecosystem functions. The functional impact of local herbivorous fish assemblages in current approaches may be overestimated, potentially leading to skewed assessments of reef resilience. Our results highlight the need to incorporate collective animal behaviour and spatio-temporal scales into future assessments of ecosystem functions and ultimately ecological resilience. A plain language summary is available for this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1144-1155
Number of pages12
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes


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